TORONTO - At least Brian Burke used the pronoun “we.”
When describing the perils of spending stupid money on July 1, the Maple Leafs general manager included himself in the group that tends to overpay on hockey’s annual shopping day, whether the shelves are stocked with quality merchandise or not.
Burke, after all, has seen his share of acquisitions blow up in each of his first three summers here. First there was Mike Komisarek who was overpaid and immediately underachieved. Then there was Colby Armstrong who might have been a useful third-liner if he could have stayed healthy. And most recently, the failed first-line centre named Tim Connolly.
In each case Burke was taking a shot and various deficiencies, including injury, conspired against the success of the top three, especially Armstrong, who had his contract bought out on the weekend.
So not doing anything of significance on the first two days of free agency may not have been the worst thing for Burke and Leafs management. Not that they had a choice at landing the big game, mind you.
Not overspending this time around is in part prudence by the team and in part the predicament that the Leafs find themselves in.
With a lean market to begin with, a roster with too many holes and too many questions about which direction the team is headed, Toronto is far from a preferred destination for the top end of any free agent crop.
It may not have always been that way. When Burke first arrived here, it was probably easier to get players and agents around the league to buy into the buzz. One of the sport’s biggest personalities landing in maybe its biggest market was tantalizing. Getting Phil Kessel as a bonafide superstar right out of the hop, plus the declaration that he wasn’t interested in a five-year rebuild made the Leafs at least intriguing.
That plan has changed, of course, in part because of the team’s inability to make the post-season under Burke’s watch. The blame for that can be spread over multiple layers but perhaps the biggest problem is that the team is almost back at square one as new coach Randy Carlyle comes in to do his own building.
If Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the two big names on the market this year were going to consider Toronto, they were going to need to see a lot more than that. Almost by definition, most of the high-end players that become free agents now are looking for big money and a big shot at winning and not necessarily in that precise order.
It’s why Parise can hold the hockey world hostage as he justifiably considers his options. If New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Chicago are the frontrunners, besides the big cash on the table, Parise would be a fool not to take his time handicapping and decide which team gives him the best chance at earning his first Stanley Cup ring.
When players like Parise — and probably Brad Richards last summer — look at Toronto all they see is a team without a big-time centre, with big questions in net and with no immediate prospects for significant improvement.